Islamic Studies Nana Asma'u bint Usman ‘dan Fodio
Beverly Mack
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0262


Nana Asma’u bint Usman ‘dan Fodio (b. 1793–d. 1864/5 CE; Gregorian calendar dates vary in concordance with the Islamic calendar) was a Fulani poet, scholar, and teacher of both men and women in the area that gave rise to the city of Sokoto, in northern Nigeria. She was also an activist who used her poetic works to model behavior and promote reformed Islam. The clan name Fodio (also spelled Fodiyo) means “learned”; all children in the extended family were educated by their mothers and fathers. They were literate in Fulfulde, their first language; in Arabic, the pedagogical language; and Hausa, the lingua franca of the region. All three languages were written in Arabic script. Several individuals, including Asma’u, also acquired a working knowledge of spoken Tamchek, the language of the itinerant Tuareg. Asma’u was a daughter of Shehu Usman ‘dan Fodio (b. 1754–d. 1817), leader of the Sokoto Jihad (1803–1830) of Islamic reform, which began when she was ten years old. As an intelligent, articulate youngster, Asma’u readily absorbed the political ramifications of local kings’ oppression of Muslims and syncretic practices of non-Islamic and Islamic customs, which actions precipitated the Jihad. When she began to write her own long poetic works, the poems included her views about these conflicts, character evaluations of the primary historical personages of the time, and straightforward explanations of Islamic tenets of belief. Influenced by Qur’anic literary style, Asma’u wrote her poems in specific rhyme and meter, rendering them more easily memorized through repeated recitation. These mnemonic devices were useful in the program of women’s education of women, the ‘Yan Taru (Hausa, “the Associates”), which Asma’u established for the purpose of re-educating society according to reformed, mainstream Islam. Also evident in her poetic works are the theosophical perspectives inherent in Qadiriyya Sufi tenets (based on the teachings of Iranian Abdul Qadir Gilani, b. 1077–d. 1166 CE), which framed the Fodio family’s Islamic practices. Asma’u’s father’s mystic Sufi experiences began around the time of her birth and are said to account for his having named her; Asma’u was a twin, and the Islamic custom was to name twins gender-appropriate versions of Hassan and Hussein, commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons. The Shehu duly named his son Hassan, but Asma’u was named after the historical Asma, daughter of Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s close friend. The historical Asma was known for having saved the Prophet Muhammad and her father by providing them with water during their escape from Makkah on their hejira to Medinah. The Shehu is said to have seen in a dream that his daughter would be equally important to the success of his own hejira and promotion of reformed Islam. That Asma’u’s ‘Yan Taru program has served to educate rural women for a century and a half since its inception proves the Shehu’s expectations about Asma’u’s legacy correct.

General Overviews

The watershed work on Nana Asma’u is Jean Boyd’s biography (Boyd 1989), which served to elevate Asma’u literally from a footnote to an historical source in her own right. Boyd’s extensive field experience involved working with Asma’u’s manuscripts over a period of several decades’ residence in Sokoto, Nigeria. Boyd’s diligent consultation with Asma’u’s descendants and other scholars intimately familiar with Asma’u’s works underpins the credibility of her writings on Asma’u and accounts for the value of the primary source materials that her work contributed to the field. Boyd and Mack 1997 includes Asma’u’s body of written works in English translations and facsimiles of their original formats in three languages, all in Arabic script. Mack and Boyd 2000 provides analysis of selected works in specific pedagogical contexts, while Boyd and Mack 2013 recounts Asma’u’s story in deeper historical detail than previous works and brings it up to date in the 21st century.

  • Boyd, Jean. The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793–1865 Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader. London: Frank Cass, 1989.

    Definitive guide to the life and times of Nana Asma’u. Pen and ink illustrations by author. Outline chronology, glossary, and discussions of technical skills and width of Asma’u’s interests. Bibliography and index. Recommended for all levels beyond elementary.

  • Boyd, Jean, and Beverly B. Mack. Collected Works of Nana Asma’u. Daughter of Usman ‘dan Fodio (1793–1864). East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997.

    Texts and English translations of all known works by Asma’u to date. Includes essential introductory to Asma’u and her historical context, chronological, historical, and literary provenance of each work and extensive historical footnotes. Includes three glossaries (terms, principal place names, individuals), maps, published and unpublished works cited, and two appendices: Hausa Roman versions of poems originally in Hausa and original authenticated facsimiles. Recommended for researchers.

  • Boyd, Jean, and Beverly B. Mack. The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u. Daughter of Usman ‘dan Fodio (1793–1864). Ibadan, Nigeria: Sam Bookman, 1999.

    Nigerian edition. Camera-ready copy of 1997 publication of the same name.

  • Boyd, Jean, and Beverly Mack. Educating Muslim Women: The West African Legacy of Nana Asma’u, 1793–1864. Oxford: Interface, 2013.

    Discussion of Sokoto Jihad and Hijra, Asma’u’s role in the Sokoto Caliphate, origins of the ‘Yan Taru, poetic works, caliphate culture and ethics during colonialism, ‘Yan Taru-related Muslim women scholars in 20th and 21st centuries. Appendix of ‘Yan Taru related individuals. Published references and list of manuscripts privately held. Recommended for those interested in further information on Nana Asma’u.

  • Mack, Beverly B., and Jean Boyd. One Woman’s Jihad Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

    Selected works by Asma’u discussed in contexts of Islamic scholarship, general religious studies, ethnic studies, literature, history, and women’s studies. Appendix includes full texts of the thirteen poems discussed in narrative. Glossary and works cited. Recommended for use at secondary and university levels.

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